The day you get the keys is always great.
Whether it’s the keys to your office at a new job or keys to the house you’ve been saving to buy or keys to that new car you’ve been dreaming of driving, the moment those keys hit your hand, all your long-awaited hopes for that job or house or car feel like they’ve finally arrived. You can then take a deep breath, feel the weight of your realized dream in your hands, slip those keys into your pocket, and step into the security of finally having arrived at what you’ve longed for.
I remember dreaming of that day when I was 15, imagining what life would be like when I turned 16 and had the keys to my dream car dropped into my adolescent hands. I imagined cruising up to school the first day of my Junior year, with the top off my dream Jeep Wrangler, my hair blowing in the wind, with my favorite tunes blaring from my CD player, and all my friends nodding in approval. Well, by the time 16 rolled around, after all that dreaming, I felt the weight of car keys in my hand. The problem was they were the keys to my grandmother’s old car, a 1986 brown Cutlass Supreme. My first day of Junior year would be a little different than I dreamed. The air conditioning had gone out over the summer and the driver side window wouldn’t roll down. It didn’t have a cd player, so I had to settle for the only cassette I owned at the time, John Denver’s greatest hits. I creaked up that first day just late enough that I could avoid turning heads and witnessing the disapproval. Sometimes, the day you get the keys is great until you realize what those keys actually belong to.
In our gospel lesson from last week we heard Jesus ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And we heard Peter boldly respond “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” It is the first time in the gospel of Matthew that anyone claims Jesus to be that long-awaited, hoped for King who would bring God’s restoration for all. Jesus replies to Peter’s answer saying “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! God has revealed this to you. You are Peter (or as Christie put it last week, “Rocky”) and on this 'rock' I will build my church.” And then Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Needless to say, it’s quite the high point for Peter on his journey as a disciple of Jesus.
And then we get to this week’s passage, and we hear Jesus tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter is confronted with what the keys he’s been given actually belong to. He then pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him saying “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And he gets quite the response from Jesus, who says “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter had a pretty great week in last week’s lesson; this week not so much. Peter goes from being the rock to a stumbling stone; he goes from being unthreatened by Hades to being called “Satan”; he goes from being one intimately connected to God’s wisdom to one whose mind is too fixed on human things and not divine things.
And to make matters worse for Peter and the disciples, Jesus then turns and says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those keys Peter holds are getting heavier and heavier. The kingdom to which those keys belong is not only going to look a lot different than Peter anticipated, but for him and the disciples to be a part of what God is doing in Jesus it is going to cost them a lot.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Whenever I think of these challenging words from Jesus it’s most often from the perspective of an individual's commitment to the way of Jesus. But, in his book, After Crucifixion, theologian Craig Keen examines these words of Jesus not as they apply to an individual Christian but as they apply to the communal body of a local church. He explores what it means for the church to be a “martyr-church,” a gathering of people who bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through the way they go about being a community. Craig Keen asks what I find to be a difficult question: “How would a local church proceed, if it lived every day with the in-its-bones conviction that it does not have to survive?”
Keen goes on to say, “For [a local church] to be a martyr-church is for it...to live without fear of extinction...That is the confidence born of the waters of baptism, fed on loaves and fishes, fed on the body and blood of ‘that [resurrected/crucified] one.’ And if this little local body is indeed to get behind that Messiah and follow him where he goes, it will find itself suffering as well. For to follow this Messiah is to move into intimate solidarity with those who have no standing before imperial powers and their functionaries, solidarity with those who are most threatened by extinction, those who are most despised and rejected, most targeted for arrest and expulsion. It is to follow the Messiah who goes ahead of us into Galilee.”
How would we, as a local church proceed, if we lived every day with the in-our-bones conviction that we do not have to survive? What if we were free, as a local church, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus where he goes?
And I want to be very clear here about what I’m not saying. We live in some tense times, navigating our way through a pandemic. I’m not suggesting we ignore the risks and blaze forward regardless of danger. No, we’re not called to crucifixion or to be martyrs; we’re called to follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus well and faithfully means to use wisdom as we seek to love others in ways that considers everyone’s best interest.
What I am suggesting however, is that we must guard ourselves against focusing the church’s mission on survival and self-preservation. For decades now, long before a pandemic, the global church has found itself in decline, and this trend has caused many to worry about the future of the church and what we need to do to secure it’s life for the future. And as we move forward through and beyond this pandemic, we’ll be entering into a time when churches in our world will be concerned more than ever with survival and self-preservation. I’m afraid that a church which seeks to save its life, will lose it. But one that picks up its cross and follows Jesus where he goes will find it’s life. And even if that church doesn’t survive—just as Jesus went down into the belly of the beast and got chomped up—our future always comes to us as gift, a gift from the one who can create something out of nothing, a gift from the one who can raise to new life that which is dead as dead can be.
How would we, as a local church proceed, if we lived every day with the in-our-bones conviction that we do not have to survive? What would it look like for us, as a local church community, to live together here and now—in Hendersonville, North Carolina—as people who had decided together that we were going to pick up our cross and follow this Jesus? What would the shape of our life and the direction of our activity look like?
Paul in our epistle today gives us a glimpse of what this kind of church might look like:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
“Overcome evil with good.” Some days the evil around us feels overwhelming: racial inequities, climate catastrophe, an ever-widening gap between those who have and those who do not, hunger in a world of plenty, and on and on the list goes. To take up our cross together and follow Jesus means for us, as a local church community, to remember that our future comes to us as a gift and we can then live everyday with an in-our-bones conviction that we do not have to survive or avoid extinction. We can be free to walk out with Jesus into what is not yet with the kind of hope and courage that does not need to avoid defeat. We can be free to walk out with Jesus to the people and into the places he is going in order to overcome evil with good.